Swandro and Skaill Open Day – Sunday 24th July

The international team excavating the eroding archaeological site at Swandro and the Viking Farmstead at Skaill on the Orkney island of Rousay are holding an exciting open day on 24th July 2016.

Everyone is welcome and transport will be available from Rousay ferry terminal for those who travel across as foot passengers (Ring us at 01856 569225 so that we can meet you at Rousay Ferry Pier).

The details are as follows:

  • Venue: Swandro and Skaill archaeology excavations
  • Sunday 24th July
  • 11am – 4.30pm
  • “Living Archaeology” activities
  • Meet Valgar Ketilson, the Viking bone carver and get hands on with the past
  • Site tours around the archaeology excavations
  • Guided walk along the Westness Walk
  • Artefact displays
  • Ferry from Tingwall at 11.55am. Return 5.30pm. Travel as a foot passenger.

Swandro Open day

Background to the Excavations

Julie Bond and Steve Dockrill of the University of Bradford write…….The Knowe of Swandro on the Orcadian Island of Rousay, consists of a mound  which is situated immediately behind a boulder beach on the Bay of Swandro. On its eastern flank is the Norse settlement site known as Westness, excavated by the Norwegian archaeologist Sigrid Kaland in the 1970’s (Kaland 1993). Described by RCAHMS in 1946 as ‘the much disturbed remains of a stony mound’, this knowe has generally been considered to be the remains of an Iron Age broch. At the top of the mound a crescent-shaped wall or ridge faces towards the sea, which looked like the disturbed remains of a curving wall, surrounding an area which had large tumbled stones visible in the grass. Ordnance Survey records suggested it had been investigated at some point in the past but there is no published record.  The mound may have been disturbed during Radford’s investigation of the nearby Westness Norse houses in the 1950’s or 60’s.

Amended map2aAs part of the Gateway to the Atlantic Project a number of coastal erosion sites were selected for investigation on the Island of Rousay. Due to the vulnerability of the remains at Swandro, work has concentrated on the investigation of this site. This research builds on the site and landscape studies undertaken at Tofts Ness, Sanday (1984-8 by Dockrill), Old Scatness and Jarlshof (1995-2006) in Shetland by Dockrill & Bond and the Viking Unst (2006-8) project by Bond.

 

The Key Questions

  1. What is the extent of the Iron Age settlement and how does this change over time? The understanding of the Iron Age settlement in cultural and economic terms by the excavation and sampling of these sites will provide a current and informed understanding for people living on Rousay in the Iron Age and how this changes over time.
  2. What is the association with the Norse settlement and how does this inform on the question of the Pictish/Viking cultures? The taking of existing estates by Scandinavian settlers is still a contentious issue in terms of its nature and date. Only with more detailed excavation will it be possible to gain an insight into this important transition on what increasingly seems to be a vital site for this transition period.
  3. What is the potential of the Chambered Cairn in providing new data to complement the burial monuments excavated previously in Orkney? The site has the potential to establish the relationship of this monument form to the later Iron Age settlement, a phenomenon observed at a number of sites in Orkney, as well as providing a unique opportunity to investigate the construction of the mound due to the erosion.
  4. The investigation of this eroding site takes place within a research framework, which also demonstrates the relevance of the disappearing record. The long settlement history or “biography” revealed by the erosion enables the study of human behaviour in this particular place through major changes in culture, climate and environment.

The Work so Far

A number of set upright stones were just visible among the pebbles on the beach in 2010. Subsequent excavation indicated archaeological survival on the beach below the erosion face that forms the boundary between land and high water. The presence of these deposits and their subsequent investigation has completely changed our understanding of this enigmatic mound. Initial clearance of the overlying beach material revealed the remains of an Iron Age structure. This was confirmed by an AMS radiocarbon date of 25BC-AD130 at 95% confidence for carbonized barley from a midden, which sealed flagging in one of the compartments. Work in 2012 enabled the nature of the erosion to be more fully understood indicating significant archaeological survival and potential. The sea had created terraces or steps within the archaeological mound, with each of these eroded scars being covered by re-deposited beach material.

In 2012 on the north western side of the cleared archaeological surface the remains of a substantial outer wall forming the arc of a large circular building seemed to form the continuation of a crescent shaped ridge at the top of the mound and it was thought at first to be the outer wall of a large roundhouse of broch proportions. However the presence of a series of stepped concentric outer wall-faces containing a rubble core suggests that the mound represents a Neolithic chambered cairn.

Work in 2013 also concentrated on the continuation of the site south east of the mound. Investigation in 2014 has demonstrated a Pictish phase, indicated by cellular structures built within the infilled remains of more substantial Iron Age structures which themselves show there is a continuation of the site on the foreshore and under the boulder beach. The truncated remains of the Norse Hall clearly overlie this Pictish/Late Iron Age settlement. Excavation at Swandro in 2014 also clearly indicated that the top of the mound forming the Neolithic Chambered Cairn had been partially robbed of stone in the Iron Age and infilled with Late Iron Age (Pictish) midden.

On the seaward area of the beach under the boulders the truncated building (Structure 1) was further investigated. Midden was found to continue to seaward but is clearly being affected by tidal action; deposits of midden located by coring in the intertidal zone in 2011 have now disappeared.

Work on the beach in 2014 concentrated on the excavation of the later Iron Age (Pictish) elements of the site. Excavation revealed a complexity of structural development with building forms found to be nested in earlier, larger structures. The sea had partially destroyed both sets of buildings. The truncations were cleaned as sections, sampled and recorded.  The part-excavation of one of these later truncated buildings (Structure 2) in 2014 saw the sampling of floor surfaces down to the primary flag floor. The excavation and sampling of the infill of a third building form revealed the presence of slag and crucible material suggesting copper alloy working. A broken flagstone within a floor surface of one structure proved to be a capstone to a well. The well was accessed by steps and corbelled on three sides, with clay bonding present in the lower part; it is still filled by a freshwater spring.

IMG_1021
The remains of a spring fed Iron Age well showing the steps down to the water.

 

Excavation in 2015 continued to define the partially eroded structures on the beach and the excavation of the Pictish building (within the extension started in 2014). The passage to the chambered cairn was identified and the upper fill contained evidence of Viking Age activity with the finding of a coin of EANRED (King of Northumbria in the first half of the ninth century AD). Gareth Williams (in discussion of this find and within a Northern Isles context) was happy to see this as being a Viking Age deposition. The upper part of the beach containing the eroded buildings was recorded with both photogrammetry and 3D laser scanning.

The storm beach area containing the chambered cairn, which had been recorded in 2012, was re-examined in 2015 to identify and record the effect and damage caused by the sea since the site had been carefully covered and re-packed with beach cobbles. The tomb revetment demonstrated that heightened wave activity over the intervening winters had shifted deposits and revealed one of the lower revetment stones before clearance. Once uncovered, this area was cleaned and recorded using digital imaging and 3 dimensional scanning. It is worth noting that the cairn has suffered greatly from the effects of erosion in the intervening years, with much of the lower (seaward) circuit of the outer casement wall and the packing contained by it having been removed by the sea. Several of the large blocks from this lower revetment have been torn out and have completely disappeared. The water level at high tide regularly comes to this outer part of the tomb. The large stones that remain were angular when recorded in 2012 and now show significant smoothing by the action of the sea and movement of smaller beach material.

Finally….The erosion is rapid; midden deposits found during an examination of the beach at low tide in 2011 have been completely destroyed by the sea. The sea is actively destroying the eastern part of the site under the earthwork remains of the Norse houses; stonework still survives but most of the sediments and midden deposits have been washed away and the front stones of the remaining features show battering and wear